Uncovering a hidden problem
Area groups promote Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month
By JULIE RIDDLE
News Staff Writer
ALPENA – A petite 17-year-old with earnest brown eyes told her story in a quiet voice.
“I got pushed a couple of times,” she said, “in front of the whole class.”
She’s not alone. One in three high school students report experiencing physical or sexual abuse in their dating relationships.
That statistic is the impetus for a national effort aimed at raising awareness about the difficulties encountered by teenagers experiencing their first romantic relationships in a world in which they are not given a healthy picture of what’s normal and what is not okay.
February has been designated Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Although recent efforts to create awareness through activities in local schools have been derailed by bad weather, local advocates encourage the community to become aware the problem and make efforts to reach out to the young people who may not even know they are being abused.
‘I CRIED A LOT’
The girl’s first romantic relationship, in her freshman year, was with a boy with a rough past. She talked about his flashes of anger and remembered encountering stony silence or cruel words and name-calling when he wasn’t pleased, which was often.
She didn’t see the relationship as abusive. After all, he didn’t leave her bruised, didn’t sexually assault her. But there were times he would raise a fist at her or make her feel small around his friends.
“My friends didn’t like him,” she said. “They knew that I cried a lot.”
The News does not identify alleged victims of domestic violence.
After he was unkind, he would apologize and say it wouldn’t happen again. But it always did.
She knew other girls liked the popular young man, knew that leaving him would mean losing her place in the social sphere she had found as his girlfriend.
“When I was younger, I was like, ‘I’m going to die alone,'” she said, explaining why she didn’t walk away from something that made her feel unsafe. “…I just didn’t want to mess things up.”
‘BELIEVE, SUPPORT AND VALIDATE’
Teens often don’t recognize the signs they are in an abusive relationship or feel like it’s OK to make a change, says Jillian Ferguson, sexual assault outreach and services associate at Hope Shores Alliance in Alpena.
Dating violence encompasses more than physical and sexual violence, Ferguson emphasizes. Abusers use emotional, mental, and verbal tactics to establish control and give themselves power over the person they profess to love.
The culture by which teens are surrounded tends to depict unhealthy relationships, normalizing behaviors that should be unacceptable and making it difficult for teens to trust their instincts as to whether their own relationships have crossed into unhealthy territory.
Television, social media, and popular, teen-targeted movies such as “Fifty Shades of Gray” and the “Twilight” series glamorize unwholesome relationships, romanticizing them to an audience already susceptible to a sentimentalized view of romantic attachment.
Parents can do a great deal to help establish definitions of what normal should look like, Ferguson said.
Taking opportunities to talk to younger children when situations of dominating behavior present themselves – even on the playground – can let growing minds know the examples they see are not always what should be accepted within a relationship.
It can be difficult to know how to help a child, student, or friend who is enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship.
Be there for them, Ferguson said. Sometimes, the best thing that can be offered to a teenager who is stuck in a controlling and often isolating relationship is a listening ear.
“Believe, support, and validate” the experiences shared by a teenager, Ferguson said, providing them a safe place where their feelings and experiences aren’t judged, and where they are encouraged to believe in their own power to choose what steps they will take within the relationship.
‘WE’RE ALL VULNERABLE’
Teenage girls are often given advice on how to be safer. Don’t walk alone. Carry pepper spray. Don’t get drunk.
Ferguson cautions against relying on such victim-focused strategies to end the problem.
“Abusers target vulnerabilities,” Ferguson said. “And it’s literally impossible to reduce all of our vulnerabilities as people. We’re all vulnerable in different ways throughout our lifespan.”
The community surrounding a teenager can help make the societal shift from a focus on the victim’s need to change to the abuser’s need to stop the abuse, Ferguson stated.
Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month is about teens, and those who live with and love them. But it’s also for everyone else. You may not be a mom, dad, or grandparent, Ferguson said, but the issue is still a part of the community in which you live.
“Culture affects everybody,” said Ferguson. “We all want to live in a society that’s safe and secure, where these types of things aren’t happening.”
Ferguson encourages everyone to be ready to listen and encourage, and to be a voice that speaks out against controlling behavior and abuse of all kinds and at all levels.
Young people who feel they are caught in an abusive relationship do have options. The heart of Teen Dating Violence Awareness month is to help those who feel trapped by their relationship to see the doors to change.
Ferguson pointed to the power of a united community offering reassurance.
“There’s an entire league of people around you here to believe, support and validate you,” she said, challenging young people to not feel alone with their struggles. “If you choose to make a change, your situation is temporary.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teen dating violence, by the numbers
Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.
One in three girls in the U.S. is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
One in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Only 33% of teens who were in an abusive relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.
Of surveyed parents, 81% believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it’s an issue.
Though 82% of parents feel confident they could recognize the signs if their child was experiencing dating abuse, a majority of parents (58%) could not correctly identify all the warning signs of abuse.
For help identifying and addressing healthy, unhealthy and abusive dating relationships and behaviors, visit loveisrespect.org, call 866-331-9474, or text LOVEIS to 22522
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Hope Shores Alliance of Alpena confidential 24/7 help and support line: 800-396-9129.